90 years of netball - how a sport changed women's lives

Helen Tyler, Heritage Project Officer at England Netball
Women’s sport can often be overshadowed – but one HLF-supported project is highlighting the history of a game enjoyed by thousands every day. This International Women's Day, England Netball Heritage Project Officer Helen Tyler looks closer.

2016 marks the 90th birthday of the All England Netball Association, also known as England Netball. Since its invention in the US in the 1890s, the sport has brought freedom and fun to generations of women. It is now played by nearly one million women and girls every week – and the England team is number three in the world.

To celebrate, England Netball is marking the occasion with a heritage project, supported by HLF, to preserve its spectacular history with the Our Netball History website and a range of events. For as well as being nearly a century of our organisation, it has also been a century of change in women’s lives. 

One story we unearthed is that of Mary French MBE, who sadly died in January – shortly before her own 90th birthday.

Mary French

Mary was born in 1926 and grew up in Brockley, south London. She came to netball at Mary Datchelor Girls’ School in Camberwell, and after being evacuated during the Second World War, returned to the sport when she attended Dartford School of Physical Education.

“Mary combined bringing up her daughters with being England coach for three world championships (often umpiring while heavily pregnant) as well as teaching mathematics.”

Among her many achievements, Mary helped establish the game in Wales in 1945. She represented England from their first international match in 1949 to 1957. In 1956 she then captained the England team on its first tour to South Africa, defying criticism to coach black South African players and to lead a team against them on an unofficial tour. 

She stopped playing for England in 1957, the year she married Philip French, a bank inspector. Yet unlike many women of the time, Mary didn’t step back– she combined bringing up her daughters Jaqi and Nicky with being England coach for three world championships (often umpiring while heavily pregnant) as well as teaching mathematics at Croydon High School. Mary died in January this year, aged 89.

Martina Bergman-Osterberg

The project also highlighted the life of netball pioneer Martina Bergman-Osterberg, the Swedish woman who was pivotal in the invention of netball in the late 19th century. Bergman-Osterberg founded Mary’s college, Dartford School of Physical Education, first based in Hampstead. Her pioneering school was one of the first championing physical education for women: the students wore tunics instead of corsets, and after completing their studies were virtually guaranteed employment in girls’ schools throughout the country, with a yearly salary of £100.

Celebrating our 90th birthday

Today, in our 90th year, netball is more popular than ever.

The start of our celebrations began when we broke the Guinness World Record for the most players in an Exhibition Netball Match, which took place between 12 - 15 February. Over the weekend 1,322 players were involved in the match and the final score was 3,609 to the reds and 3,461 to the blues. A lot of money was raised for Sports Relief at the event and the atmosphere was fantastic - what a way to start the celebrations for our 90th year.

The heritage project at England Netball will continue to share netball history through the anniversary year. Thanks to HLF, we have produced a website that continues to have new stories added to it and input by the general public. The project is also involving schools, one of which is making us a quilt that depicts major events in the 90 years of England Netball as well as two banners on the history of the sport.

Find out more

We are in the process of organising an oral history project which we are hoping to get local schools involved in, as well as partner organisations, so these histories will not be lost and will be made available to anyone researching or interested in netball history.

The archive is in the process of being catalogued and a lot of the information and images have been uploaded to our website, so it is accessible to the public. The hard work will continue throughout the year, bringing people’s stories about the history of netball together and give them a platform to share their stories with others.

Read more stories on the Our Netball History website.

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